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1-2-3-4 Cakes

Has anyone ever asked you: Are you a cook or a baker? Sometimes it’s an easy question to answer: Do you prefer spending your time at the burners or preparing something for the oven? Would you eat dessert before dinner if you could (I have an Aunt Margie who orders her dessert before dinner whenever she goes out to eat). Are you at a loss without measuring cups or do you prefer to wantonly add ingredients to this or that purely on your mood or instinct?
I’ve always thought of myself as a cook, basically because I’m terrible at following directions and I rather do anything than measure something (“drizzle, coat, and splash” are some of my favorite directions).
But since I’ve had kids I’ve embraced my baking side a bit more. With bake sales and birthday parties it’s almost impossible NOT to form a closer relationship to flour, sugar and butter. So I’m here to say that I think you can be both a cook and a baker (although I still lean towards the former) and also that I’ve made it my hobby to find dessert recipes that don’t require a degree in fondant or a mini blow torch.
This recipe, for 1-2-3-4- cake is perfect for the occasional baker with kids.
Because it really is as easy as “1-2-3-4″ (so-called because the ingredients include 1 cup milk, 2 sticks butter, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs) and it’s improvisation friendly.

I’ve adapted my version from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters, but you can find 1-2-3-4 cake recipes in various places, including the back of the Swan Cake Flour box (I love Swan cake flour, by the way).
How I make it my own is by using muffin tins, instead of cake pans (so I have little individual cakes) and I like to add berries to the batter.
The other day I had a pint of fresh strawberries so I added those (the trick here is to toss them first in a bit of flour, just enough to lightly coat, so that when the cakes bake, the fruit doesn’t sink to the bottom. Instead the berries will be suspended in the middle, looking so lovely when you slice it open).

And a word on the batter:
One of the reasons it comes out so light and lovely is that you fold 4 whipped egg whites into it before baking. Adding egg whites separately is also a wonderful trick—one that my mother actually passed down to me from my Belgian grandmother—for almost anything you’re baking. It creates a wonderful lightness, especially with pancakes, and I think it’s worth the extra step.
Clearly Belle and Conor agree (is it wrong to let your children lick a bowl of raw batter clean? Because there was no stopping them).
I imagine you can have lots of fun with this recipe as summer starts to provide us all with an assortment of delicious stone fruits and berries: peaches, plums, raspberries…and per Alice, you can also add lemon or orange zest and juice to the batter to make a citrus-flavored cake.
We have been enjoying these dainty little gateaus all week: some for dessert fresh out of the oven, some to our neighbors just because we like them, and some for a little tea party. If you want to make them even better you can simply dust them with confectioner’s sugar or slather them with a bit of cream cheese frosting (lately, instead of cream cheese I’ve been using neufchatel, which is a lower in fat but still rich. Just substitute neufchatel for any cream cheese frosting recipe you like).

Recipe for 1-2-3-4 Cakes (adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters)

Preheat the oven to 350.
Butter and flour 24 muffin tins.
Separate 4 eggs.
Measure 1 cup of milk.
Sift 3 cups of cake flour.
Stir 4 tsp of baking powder and 1/2 tsp of salt into flour. Set aside.
In another bowl beat 2 sticks of softened unsalted butter until light and fluffy.
Add 2 cups of sugar.
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the 4 egg yolks, one at a time, and 1 tsp of vanilla extract.
When butter/sugar/eggs are well mixed, add the flour mixture and milk alternately, starting and ending with one-third of flour. Stir last addition just until the flour is incorporated.
In another bowl whip the egg whites until soft peaks form.
Fold one third of the egg whites into batter, then gradually fold in the rest.
Pour batter into prepared pans.
Toss one pint of cleaned and quartered strawberries with enough flour to lightly coat.
Insert an even amount of the berry pieces into the batter (don’t pus them all the way down, it’s fine if they’re peaking out of the top).
Bake cakes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean–about 30 minutes.

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